Nearly half the world’s child mar­riages take place in In­dia, where ac­tivist Kriti Bharti is fight­ing pas­sion­ately against such unions

In a coun­try where a stag­ger­ing 40 per cent of the world’s child mar­riages take place, one woman is de­fy­ing death threats to res­cue child brides and grooms. He­len Roberts meets Kriti Bharti

Friday - - Contents -

As Kriti Bharti walked to­wards the front door of a run­down ru­ral house near Jaipur, in the western In­dian state of Ra­jasthan, her heart was beat­ing fast. She had been plan­ning this mis­sion for the past three days – ever since re­ceiv­ing an anony­mous phone call telling her that a fam­ily was try­ing to get their eight-year-old daugh­ter mar­ried to a rel­a­tive’s 11-year-old son. Kriti was de­ter­mined to pre­vent that and res­cue the girl.

She knew it would not be easy. Fight­ing age-old cus­toms in In­dia is fraught with dan­gers. “Some or­tho­dox fam­i­lies will go to any lengths to pro­tect their deep-rooted tra­di­tions and wouldn’t think twice about hurt­ing or even killing any­body who stood in their way,’’ Kriti says. “So I had to be care­ful.’’

She knew from ex­pe­ri­ence that con­tact­ing the po­lice would be use­less be­cause the fam­ily would im­me­di­ately deny their ac­tions and re­main quiet for a cou­ple of weeks, only to go ahead with the child mar­riage later. “I had to res­cue the girl and en­sure she was not mar­ried off against her wishes at such a young age.’’

Kriti walked pur­pose­fully to the door, looked around and then re­alised the house ap­peared de­serted and silent. A sixth sense told her some­thing was not right. Usu­ally there would be a buzz and some ac­tiv­ity in a home where a child mar­riage is be­ing held. Sens­ing trou­ble, she paused near the front door then de­cided to look through an open win­dow to see if she could spot the girl or her fam­ily in­side.

The next mo­ment her mo­bile phone rang. It was a vol­un­teer who worked with her. “Run,’’ she said, as soon as Kriti an­swered the call. “Don’t go in­side the house or even hang around the house. It’s a trap. Leave. Now.’’

Kriti calmly put her phone in her bag and non­cha­lantly walked away back to her car.

Al­though she was ter­ri­fied that some­one would run out and grab her, she con­tin­ued to act calmly, not will­ing to do any­thing that might give her away. Once in­side her car, she turned the keys in the ig­ni­tion just in time to see a group of men emerge from the house. She quickly put her foot on the ac­cel­er­a­tor and the car sped away, churn­ing up a dust cloud.

Peer­ing into the rear view mir­ror Kriti found the men were not fol­low­ing her. She breathed a sigh of relief. If they did fol­low her, she had a plan of ac­tion: she would head to the near­est po­lice sta­tion and seek help.

“I was just lucky that time,’’ says the 26-yearold child rights ac­tivist and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion psy­chol­o­gist. A vol­un­teer who works with her had run a check on the ini­tial phone call she’d re­ceived and re­al­is­ing it was a trap, tipped her off at the last minute. “I’m sure if they’d caught me, they would have killed me.’’

Kriti says she is aware that there are “a lot of peo­ple who are de­ter­mined to stop me from do­ing my work – sav­ing child brides’’.

She has a group of around five vol­un­teers to as­sist her but on al­most all child bride-sav­ing mis­sions, she prefers to go alone. “I don’t want to put the lives of oth­ers at risk,’’ she says.

This was not the first time the young woman had tried to save a child bride from an ar­ranged mar­riage. It was also not the first time she had es­caped with her life in the nick of time. “Over the past five years since I’ve started work­ing to stop child mar­riages, I’ve helped to an­nul over 150 child mar­riages,’’ she says. “I’ve also re­ceived more than 50 threats from fam­i­lies warn­ing me of dire con­se­quences, even death if I in­ter­fered in their per­sonal is­sues.’’

Kriti has been threat­ened by not only fam­i­lies but also mem­bers of caste coun­cils and even lo­cal politi­cians but she re­fuses to be in­tim­i­dated. Thank­fully, so far she has not been harmed se­ri­ously.

“Death threats have be­come a part of my life now and I have come to ac­cept it as part of this job,’’ she says.

Kriti from Jodhpur, in Ra­jasthan, is an award-win­ning anti-child-mar­riage ac­tivist and women and chil­dren’s rights cam­paigner who has been work­ing to help chil­dren for over five years. She sin­gle hand­edly es­tab­lished the char­ity Saarthi Trust in 2012 to help vic­tims of In­dia’s child mar­riage cri­sis and set up another char­ity, Bad­htey Kadam, to help poor street chil­dren who are look­ing to im­prove their lives.

Iden­ti­fy­ing with their sad­ness

Raised by her sin­gle mother, Indu Cho­pra, 58, a gov­ern­ment em­ployee, the ac­tivist grew up learn­ing to cope with the knocks she re­ceived in life: Her fa­ther, she says, aban­doned Kriti and her mother when she was two years old and Kriti was bul­lied for hav­ing no fa­ther through­out her childhood.

“I had a tough childhood so, al­though dif­fer­ent in many ways, I can iden­tify with vic­tims of child mar­riages and their grief for their lost childhood,” Kriti says. “I was ex­tremely sad to grow up with­out a fa­ther and I can in some way iden­tify with the sad­ness in the chil­dren I meet who are forced into ar­ranged mar­riages at a very young age. They just want to be chil­dren, with no wor­ries or fears, but their fam­i­lies thrust them into

re­la­tion­ships they are not ready for and even want. So when I grew up, I wanted to help such chil­dren, give them a life to look for­ward to.’’

It was while Kriti was do­ing her mas­ters de­gree in re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion psy­chol­ogy from Ra­jasthan Univer­sity in 2007 that she be­gan to work with chil­dren who had ex­pe­ri­enced trau­matic sit­u­a­tions and re­quired coun­selling.

“I re­mem­ber the first girl I worked with was a vic­tim of child traf­fick­ing,’’ she says. The child had been res­cued by a char­ity and was in at a care cen­tre in Jodhpur. As a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion psy­chol­o­gist Kriti was asked by the care cen­tre to pro­vide the girl with coun­selling. She says, “She re­quired sev­eral ses­sions of coun­selling be­fore she could re­turn to the main­stream but once she got over her fears she be­came more pos­i­tive and wanted to im­prove her life.’’

Re­al­is­ing that of­fer­ing a help­ing hand to girls in need at the right time could change their lives, Kriti de­cided to make this her life’s mis­sion. “I started coun­selling chil­dren who were in­volved in child labour, liv­ing on the streets and child mar­riage vic­tims. It was so ful­fill­ing to see the change in them and the more chil­dren I saw, the more I felt com­pelled to help as many as pos­si­ble,’’ she says.

Af­ter work­ing with street chil­dren for around seven months, she found that one of the big­gest is­sues fac­ing chil­dren, par­tic­u­larly those in the ru­ral ar­eas, was child mar­riages.

The tra­di­tion of child mar­riage is deep­rooted and cen­turies-old in In­dia’s largely pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety. It not only vi­o­lates the rights of chil­dren but also ex­ploits and robs them of their childhood. “Chil­dren as young as four and five are of­ten mar­ried off by their fam­i­lies as part of tra­di­tion,’’ says Kriti.

Al­though the In­dian gov­ern­ment passed a law – the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Child Mar­riage Act (PCMA) in 2006 – which pro­hibits the mar­riage of a male younger than 21 and a fe­male un­der 18 even if both are will­ing, it has done lit­tle to help those still tan­gled up in the tragic web. Child mar­riages are still com­mon in ru­ral and even some ur­ban ar­eas of In­dia, she says.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2009 Unicef re­port ti­tled ‘State of theWorld’s Chil­dren’, nearly half of the world’s child mar­riages – 40 per cent – oc­cur in In­dia. The re­port went on to say that a shock­ing 56 per cent of women sur­veyed had mar­ried be­fore age 18 in ru­ral ar­eas.

Kriti, how­ever, be­lieves it is im­pos­si­ble to con­firm a num­ber. “In In­dia, mil­lions of chil­dren are mar­ried by their fam­i­lies when they’re still learn­ing to crawl or walk. And the fam­i­lies are very good at keep­ing it a se­cret lest they in­vite le­gal ac­tion. That’s why I am con­vinced it’s im­pos­si­ble to know the real num­ber of child mar­riages.’’

While in many cases, the girl would go to live with her hus­band once she reached pu­berty, in some cases, the girl was of­ten plucked from the se­cure en­vi­rons of her own fam­ily and taken away to live in her in-laws house at the ten­der age of seven or eight. “It was ap­palling and I was de­ter­mined to do my bit to stop this hor­ren­dous prac­tice,’’ says Kriti. Kriti be­lieves the lack of strin­gent laws along with tra­di­tion, re­li­gion, and more im­por­tantly the sup­port of the com­mu­nity Jati Pan­chay­ats – a self ap­pointed group of vil­lagers who call them­selves the caste coun­cil and of­ten im­pose its views on so­cial is­sues, mar­riages and even le­gal dis­putes – are the main rea­sons child mar­riages are still such a wide­spread is­sue.

“To­day’s laws give peo­ple the free­dom to choose and live their life as they wish so child mar­riages are noth­ing but an out­dated con­cept and In­dia needs to des­per­ately catch up with th­ese mod­ern hu­man rights,’’ she says.

“I’ve met many fam­i­lies who have mar­ried their five-year-old boy and a two-year-old girl in se­cret. They’ll solem­nise the of­fi­cial mar­riage as soon as their chil­dren are of the le­gal mar­riage­able age, which is 18 for girls and

21 for boys. In the eyes of ev­ery­one else it is a le­gal wed­ding but the fam­ily have had them paired since the day they were in their nap­pies. It is so very wrong.’’

In 2008, Kriti de­cided to for­malise help­ing chil­dren in need and set up a char­ity called Saarthi Trust. Her mis­sion is to help vic­tims of child mar­riages di­vorce their part­ners if they are un­happy with the ar­range­ment or to res­cue them even be­fore they are mar­ried off.

“We’ve stopped sev­eral ‘mar­riages’ from be­com­ing of­fi­cial. So as soon as the girl turns 18, the age when she can move away from her fam­ily’s house and go to live with her hus­band, she can ap­proach me for help. I do all I can in­clud­ing pro­vid­ing le­gal help to stop her from hav­ing to move in with her hus­band who she was forced to marry maybe 15 years ear­lier.’’

News of sup­port spreads

Many of the girls get to hear about Kriti’s work through word of mouth, she says. Sita Vishnoi, from Jaipur, can­not thank her enough. She was mar­ried at the ten­der age of two – a se­cret she came to know when she turned 18.

“I was told by my fa­ther that I have to go and stay with my hus­band,’’ says the now 25-yearold. “I was shocked be­cause I’d never known I was mar­ried. My fa­ther and un­cle were the only mem­bers of my fam­ily who ever knew the mar­riage took place and they kept it a se­cret from the whole fam­ily to avoid con­tro­versy and any kind of le­gal ac­tion be­ing taken.

“I heard about Kriti’s work from a friend of mine who was also in the same sit­u­a­tion as I was. I con­tacted her and asked her to help me.’’

Sita was re­luc­tant to ap­proach vil­lage au­thor­i­ties be­cause she wasn’t sure they would help her, as her fam­ily was well known in the area. She also didn’t know much about the le­gal­i­ties of the mar­riage she had un­wit­tingly en­tered into.

Kriti says, “Sita con­tacted me over the tele­phone more than a year ago and ex­plained her sit­u­a­tion. I’ve been work­ing on her case since then and hope­fully the mar­riage an­nul­ment will be fi­nalised in a month.

“Sita’s fam­ily was up­set that she was get­ting her mar­riage an­nulled so washed their hands of her. But she is hope­ful they will change their minds.’’ Kriti is help­ing Sita to get a job and learn a new trade as a seam­stress. “I want her to be­come in­de­pen­dent, have a life of her own and then de­cide on mar­riage and such im­por­tant things in life.’’

Kriti of­ten dips into her own sav­ings – she works part-time as a teacher – to pay for the le­gal and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion costs of the vic­tims she saves. Some big-hearted in­di­vid­u­als also do­nate to the char­ity, she says.

Kriti hit lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional head­lines last year when she helped 18-year-old Laxmi Sar­gara, from Jodhpur, be­come the first woman in In­dia to an­nul her child mar­riage. Her story was pub­lished in Fri­day in July. Since then, many com­mu­ni­ties have started to sit up and take no­tice of Kriti’s in­flu­ence.

“That case def­i­nitely brought much-needed aware­ness about In­dia’s child mar­riages and gave courage to hun­dreds of other girls to chal­lenge the tra­di­tion. Many girls have come for­ward since,’’ Kriti said.

“An­nulling a mar­riage is only the first step. The vic­tim re­quires a lot more help af­ter that. She needs ad­vice on re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, has to be guided to be on her own and needs a lot of coun­selling to build her con­fi­dence.’’

Girls aren’t the only ones who are forced into mar­riage. “I’ve helped sev­eral boys too who were vic­tims of child mar­riage,’’ says Kriti.

Sukhdev Kha­dav, from Jodhpur, says he was mar­ried against his will at the age of 16. “My fa­ther forced me to marry a girl who was the daugh­ter of his good friend,’’ says the now 20-year-old. “I had to fol­low his wishes.’’

But Sukhdev wanted to find a wife of his choice af­ter com­plet­ing his stud­ies and get­ting a job. “When I re­alised my par­ents would not al­low me to ex­er­cise my rights, I de­cided to con­tact Kriti and sought her help.’’ He is now wait­ing to have his mar­riage an­nulled.

Kriti has sac­ri­ficed her own life to ded­i­cate her time to help­ing girls that are much less for­tu­nate. “I have no idea when I’ll have time to marry and have chil­dren of my own. But right now, this is im­por­tant. I hope what I am do­ing will shape the fu­ture of In­dia’s daugh­ters.’’

Kriti says that no mat­ter how many death threats she gets, she will never stop try­ing to save child brides. “Some peo­ple will go to any ex­tent to safe­guard their fam­ily’s hon­our, but I will also do my very best for change. I know my life is at risk but I can’t sit back and watch th­ese chil­dren suf­fer, I can’t,’’ she adds.

Kriti has also set up a char­ity called Bad­htey Kadam to help street chil­dren

Sup­port sys­tem, from left, Sukhdev Kha­dav, Kriti, Sita Vishnoi and Taruna. Kriti helped Taruna to get her mar­riage an­ulled and now she’s help­ing Sukhdev and Sita

Kriti, pic­tured with street chil­dren at Bad­htey Kadam, a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tre she also runs, re­ceived an award from TV chan­nel Col­ors in 2008 for her work pre­vent­ing child mar­riages

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